Interview by Howard Johnson
You came to be a member of Whitesnake in quite an odd way, didn’t you?
I suppose I did, yes. One day in late November or early December 1977 I got a phone call from Bernie Marsden. I’d first worked with him as a substitute bass player in Cozy Powell’s Hammer, filling on around 20 gigs from late ’74 going into ’75. We became quite pally and when Bernie went on to join Babe Ruth I played on a couple of tracks on one of their albums with him, 1975’s ‘Stealin’ Home’. The next thing I knew Bernie had moved up a gear when he joined Paice Ashton Lord with Ian Paice and Jon Lord, who’d previously been in Deep Purple.
Now Bernie had spent some time in Munich with Paice Ashton Lord when David Coverdale also happened to be there. They met up socially and after David and Micky Moody had worked on David’s first two solo albums they were looking to put a band together. Bernie was the third person on board and they were after a rhythm section. They’d found a bass player, a guy from Frankie Miller’s band called Chris Stewart, and were in London auditioning drummers.
At the time I was in National Health doing very complicated fusion stuff, but I was very broke. Some of the time I was working in Virgin Records in the centre of London shrink-wrapping albums out the back. Anyway, Bernie called me up and said, ‘What are you doing this afternoon? We’re auditioning drummers for David Coverdale’s band that I’m now with. We’re just down the road and our bassist can’t make it. Can you help out?’ Well, it was a 15-minute walk for me to go over there and I wasn’t doing anything else that day…
As it turned out, I got on really well with the guys. Micky, Bernie, David and I all shared the same musical heritage of blues, soul and rock and we were all roughly the same age. So I helped out and then didn’t really think too much more about it. The drummer they’d auditioned that day didn’t work out and a couple of weeks later it turned out that Chris Stewart decided to go back to Frankie Miller, so there was an opening for me in Whitesnake. By this time they’d decided on a drummer called Dave Dowle and I’d worked with him a little bit. We’d both tried out for a band called Chapman Whitney a year or two earlier and Dave had got the gig and I hadn’t. So everything fell into place very naturally for me with Whitesnake. I was introduced in a very unstressful way. If I’d auditioned in the traditional sense, not knowing anybody, then I probably wouldn’t have played very well.
What did you think of Whitesnake’s music when you helped out at the audition?
There was nothing prepared. It was more a question of ‘come along and have a jam.’ I’m sure we just did a funky groove or a ‘Rock Me Baby’ 12-bar blues-type thing. I really can’t remember. Funnily enough, though, the drummer that day was a Cozy Powell type who was possibly a bit too removed from what David and Micky were into at that time. The two solo albums are quite American, funky and laid back, not hard rock or metal in the slightest. The guy would probably have been more suitable for Whitesnake ten years later. Musically it was enjoyable, though, and personally the guys were fun to be around.
Given that David had been a big noise in Purple, the roots of Whitesnake were very low-key, though, weren’t they?
They were. You have to remember the time period. The post-punk era was starting to move into new wave. David had got involved with a guy called John Coletta, an ex-Deep Purple manager. Because we were very unfashionable I think it was hard for Coletta to get us proper deals and that was why David ended up signing to Coletta for management, publishing and record label. Then he would license stuff to other labels around the world. That would prove to be problematic further down the line.
Were you a big Deep Purple fan?
Not huge, no. I remember being 18 and having enough money to buy just one album. The choice was between ‘Shades Of Deep Purple’ and BB King’s ‘Blues Is King’. I bought the BB King record. To be honest, at that time I was probably a bit of a snob about regular rock music. I’ll meet people who came up in the music business a little after me and they’re just enormous Purple fans. But I didn’t know much about the band until much later when I had to learn their songs. I hadn’t really heard Purple’s records at that time, so I wasn’t that knowledgeable about them. Everybody else had heard Deep Purple ‘In Rock’ and I really hadn’t. I didn’t know all those famous songs from it and had never been to see the band live. The one thing that stuck out for me, though, was that I found it very inspiring that they’d gone out on a limb and chosen a total unknown like David Coverdale after Ian Gillan left the group and were willing to take a chance on him.
So what did you find appealing in Whitesnake’s music when you joined?
I think it was the band’s power mixed with a real groove that I liked. I was able to be more aggressive than when I was playing fusion stuff. National Health, Colosseum II and Gilgamesh was cerebral music and I liked that element of it, but it lacked the gutsiness that I felt was a part of me as well. Plus Whitesnake had a very clear black influence. We were all on the same page, liking Otis Redding, BB King and even ZZ Top. It was almost an unspoken thing that we were all into the same type of music, this big palette of different influences that were brought into the band.
What was the vibe like in the band in those early days?
If you wanted to be terribly critical of the early Whitesnake recordings you could say that they’re not perfect. But it was all about recording quickly and getting the vibe right. It was all very easy-going, with lots of humour. Nothing was taken terribly seriously. There weren’t big budgets and for both the first EP that we recorded in April of ’78 and the first album, ‘Trouble’, that we did that summer we were in Central Sound, a tiny studio in Denmark Street, all playing together with very little space to move. I remember when we were doing ‘Trouble’ that we were doing something like five backing tracks in a single day. It wasn’t spending a week on each song or anything like that.
You worked with highly respected producer Martin Birch right from the start of Whitesnake. Was that a big thing for you?
Not to me. Martin was regarded as more of an engineer than a producer at that time. He was very well thought of, but when you thought of record producers at that time you thought more of larger-than-life people who would tell musicians what to do and take control. Martin was much more laid back. He’d make it a very comfortable situation to record in, partly by getting really good sounds on the instruments. You felt like it was a very easy process, rather than him putting you under stress or bossing you around. Martin would certainly make sure the quality was good enough, but he wouldn’t be insistent on perfection above all else. If the feel was right, then he’d be happy to go along with that. Above all he was somebody David could trust to get the best out of people, but in a fairly easy-going way.
Keyboards would quickly become a big part of the Whitesnake sound, but when you joined you didn’t have a keyboardist in the band…
We auditioned two or three people and eventually settled on a guy called Brian Johnston. We did some gigs with him even before we started recording. I think the connection was that he’d been with Dave Dowle in Chapman Whitney. That didn’t really work out and we ended up with another guy called Pete Solley. But I don’t think it was much of a surprise when Jon Lord ended up with the band for the first album, ‘Trouble’. Both Jon and [Deep Purple drummer] Ian Paice had been to see Whitesnake in our early days and enjoyed it. After Paice Ashton Lord I think that Ian and Jon were in a band with Maggie Bell from Stone The Crows and maybe did two gigs, if that, but they weren’t doing much. So I suspect David would have phoned Jon and asked him if he fancied a spot in Whitesnake. The thing is, as good a keyboardist as Pete Solley was, he wasn’t really going in the same direction as the rest of the band. As soon as Jon brought his Hammond organ in, and with his depth of experience, you could really tell the difference.
It might have been a fairly low-key start to the band, but you seemed to attract an audience very quickly…
You’re right, we did jump up fairly quickly. I’ve been looking it up, actually, and we really didn’t do very much, touring-wise, in the early days. We did a little club tour – a dozen, maybe 15 gigs – in the spring of 1977 and we cancelled quite a few of those as well, because the venues were too small or were inadequate in some other way. There were long periods of doing nothing, followed by bouts of recording. Then in the autumn of ‘78 we did the ‘Trouble’ tour, which was more theatres. We even did one show at Hammersmith Odeon in London.
Which was recorded for a Japan-only album, ‘Live At Hammersmith’…
Well, Japan always wanted something different and special for their market and I would imagine John Coletta would have gone over there to get record company and promoter interest. The fact that we had David and Jon in the band really helped us out with Japan, because there had always been a very loyal fan base for Deep Purple members there. So I’m guessing that a Japanese company would have said, ‘We want a special live Whitesnake album just for us.’ Japan always had a certain mystique about it, so we were happy to get some interest there.
But even if Japan took to the band quickly, it took longer to break into the UK mainstream, yes?
We were still struggling to get known really and were getting mixed reactions in the UK music press, which was the main yardstick by which you were judged at that time. Journalists who were 10 years younger than us would be into The Clash and The Sex Pistols or maybe the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. But the band members came from an earlier period that we all thought was better, musically. We felt rebellious in a way, because we felt we were being criticised too easily. So if we got slagged by someone who loved The Sex Pistols, we wore it almost like a badge of honour. What validated us was the incredible reaction we got from two or three thousand people whenever we played live. I hadn’t ever been in a band that had that level of enthusiasm from an audience. It was all about people sitting cross-legged on the floor and giving you polite applause after a 20-minute instrumental. With Whitesnake there was such a lot of singing along and interaction between the band and audience that we knew we had a crowd that was totally into what we were doing. That was all we needed. Well, it wasn’t all we needed, but it made up for a lot of the criticism we got.
Would you agree that with 1979’s ‘Lovehunter’ album we started to see a more pronounced Whitesnake sound emerging?
I’d say so. By that time we’d settled more into knowing what the sound of the band should be, thanks to the combination of Micky and Bernie’s songwriting. In many ways that highlighted the fact that Dave Dowle wasn’t quite right for the band, simply because by then all the other elements had gelled better than they had on ‘Trouble’.
The band copped a lot of flak at this point over the overtly sexist album sleeve that featured a drawing of a naked woman riding a huge snake. Can you see why that happened?
I was probably the least rock ‘n’ roll out of all the band members so yes, I could understand the criticisms. But then again, David was the focal point of the band and his image was of this powerful, sexy guy. That was how he was going to be and it was fairly pointless trying to change it. The fact is, it gave the band a recognisable identity whether you liked it or not. I’m not much of a lyrics person, to be honest, and maybe I might have wanted more words that an intellectual could enjoy. But I was much more focused on the musical side anyway. You can’t argue that the Whitesnake albums from that time featured double entendres and suggestive lyrics. I think it started out as recognisably tongue-in-cheek, but I do think that by the time we got to ’Slide It In’ it had all gone too far and become too blatant. It became a bit cringeworthy.
Musically-speaking, though, by the time of 1980’s ‘Ready An’ Willing’, things were anything but cringeworthy as Ian Paice replaced Dave Dowle on drums…
Ian is my favourite drummer that I’ve ever played with. He makes it very easy to play bass, because he’s very creative and has all sorts of different styles he can add to the mix. Dave Dowle was a very good drummer, but he was more light and funky in approach. He did a good enough job, but it was difficult for him. Both David and Jon had worked with Ian, who was quite possibly the best drummer in the world. It was obvious that they would rather have the number one guy, not the number five guy.
There were personality things, too. By the time we were recording ‘Lovehunter’ in the summer of ‘79 it was obvious that Dave wasn’t happy. He was talking about leaving, because the other five band members were a bit of a gang and he was slightly on the outside of it, unfortunately. Dave was a very pleasant guy and he was a good friend back in those days. But he wasn’t on the same wavelength as everybody else. And you have to remember that Ian was Jon’s best friend, so once Jon joined he would have been very keen for Ian to come in.
How did the dynamics change within the band once Ian arrived and there were suddenly three ex-Purple men in the ranks?
Well, musically, the vibe of the band was always very much set by Micky and Bernie, rather than it ever being based on a Purple spin-off. Whitesnake was much more of a hybrid blues/funk/rock band that just happened to have some Purple guys in it. And maybe that wasn’t want some people wanted. We weren’t very Purple-ish at all. We did a couple of Purple songs, ‘Mistreated’ and ‘Might Just Take Your Life’, in the first year or so. But then we moved away from that, because as we started to find our identity the Purple songs didn’t really fit.
On a personal level, there was a certain hierarchy in Whitesnake from the get-go. It was David’s band and he already had a fairly decent income from Deep Purple. When Jon and Ian came in they were on a higher level again. They had big houses and fancy cars and didn’t have to worry about anything money-wise. Once Ian came in it became clear that he, David and Jon were no longer going to settle for anything that was substandard. There was no longer any bad transport, no crappy hotels. Things started to be done pretty decently.
Bernie, Micky and I were on a weekly wage that was nothing special and though we didn’t know it at the time Jon and Ian were being paid something that was far in excess of anything we were getting.
Did this cause resentment? Did David try to even things up, maybe, perhaps by sharing the songwriting around?
People were very aware that the songwriters made tons more money than the band members who didn’t write songs and that the songwriters were quite keen to keep it to themselves. Generally-speaking, one song on each Whitesnake album would be divided up no matter who’d written it to give every member something in terms of publishing. Whether that actually reflected what people contributed is hard to say. It really depends on your definition of what a song is. As someone who doesn’t come up with song ideas that are presented to a band I’m biased to the idea that how people play on a tune, or the suggestions they make when it’s coming together, should be reflected in the songwriting credits more than it was in Whitesnake and more than it is in many other bands.
These things are down to personalities as well. If you’re not pushy about your ideas, then they’re never going to get accepted. You have to be quite hard-nosed about getting people to do what you want them to do. Being laid back or easy going or shy about coming forward is not the best thing. Putting forward ideas wasn’t encouraged in Whitesnake, let’s put it that way. I tried here and there, but you also have to have ability and talent, and sometimes that comes with writing and writing and writing and being able to ditch all the crap ideas. I didn’t do enough of that. If we had an album to do, at that point I’d sit down and try to come up with something. It’s true that other people were doing something every week, but that doesn’t mean what they were coming up with was any good. Sometimes people’s basic ideas would clearly be rehashes of something either we’d done before, or something that another band had already done. I’d say, ‘No, that sounds just like Foreigner’ or ‘We can’t do that, because somebody else has already used that riff.’ But that doesn’t get reflected in the writing credits either.
So despite the commercial success of 1981’s ‘Come An’ Get It’ album, cracks were starting to appear, right?
They were, and it was down to a combination of lots of different things. By that point we’d had a fair amount of success in certain territories, but there was definite frustration about not being successful in other places, especially America. I think there was a sense – at least for some of the band members – that we’d done enough work by this stage to be able to spend some time at home relaxing and enjoying the fruits of the success. I think we have to admit that some of the music we were working on was getting a bit repetitive. I felt we’d gone as far as we could with the style of rock we were playing and wanted to move on a bit. I know David did too, but other people weren’t of the same opinion.
By the time we started working on ‘Saints An’ Sinners’ in 1981 things had started to go downhill. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe you start to lose the hunger or just feel it’s time for a change. Martin Birch either wasn’t available to work on the album at the start or he wanted too much money and possibly that was a mistake. Ian started second guessing himself and being very self-critical and very restrained in how he played, and that really threw things off. Maybe he was having a crisis of confidence. It’s hard to say really.
Then there were money issues. David took some time off to sort out a lot of business stuff that had meant the band wasn’t solvent, so at that time I suddenly wasn’t getting a weekly wage. For someone who’s got hundreds of thousands coming in in royalties that’s not a concern. For me it immediately became quite difficult. The band was on hold, really. All the basic stuff for ‘Saints An’ Sinners’ had been done by the autumn of ’81, and by May of ’82 that version of the band was no more. David dithered and dithered for months as to whether I should be in or out. I have it written in my diary that at one point Roger Glover was going to be the bassist in Whitesnake, but obviously that never happened.
David fired Bernie Marsden and decided to get Cozy Powell in on drums and Mel Galley on guitar. He had to finish the album and get his vocals down and Martin Birch was brought in to help with that. So there’s lot of misunderstanding regarding who’s on that record and who isn’t, because David wouldn’t credit the people who actually played on it.
You kind of realise that you’re just a pawn really. I think David was going through a very stressful time trying to extricate himself from the deals he’d got us into with John Coletta. It wasn’t like we weren’t in touch. I’d go round his place or we’d go out somewhere. I felt like I was still a member of Whitesnake, but I had to do something for money and couldn’t stick around forever.
You and Ian went off to work on Gary Moore’s ‘Corridors Of Power’ album at this point…
That’s right. I did a bit of work with John Sloman and then did Gary’s album. He asked both Ian and me to be in his band and I think Cozy must already have been in Whitesnake at this point, because Ian was totally free at this point. And Ian was very important to Gary in terms of giving him credibility in Japan, because Gary wasn’t known in Japan at that point. But I was still waiting for David to decide whether I was in Whitesnake or not. Gary was showing me a lot of interest, but it was more about being in his backing band. I wasn’t getting anything from David. So I went with Gary. Jon Lord was in the same position as me, not knowing whether he was in or out. And because Ian wasn’t there, Jon was very unsure as to whether he should stay in Whitesnake or not anyway.
So by the time ‘Saints An’ Sinners’ came out in November of 1982 Whitesnake had been rejigged. You could probably say that David should have made a complete break and changed to the John Sykes version of the band at that point. But he wasn’t ready for that yet, so he had to go through this transition period. David wanted Mel Galley in, because Mel wrote a different kind of rock song. I think David had possibly got a bit bored with what Bernie and Micky were coming up with. I think he felt it was time for new creative blood in the band, quite apart from the business issues he was dealing with.
So how did you end up back in the band again?
Whitesnake headlined Monsters Of Rock at Donington in August of 1983 and I went along to watch them. I got the vibe from the tour manager that things weren’t quite right in the band. He was kind of asking me how available I was and how committed to Gary Moore I was. So I took it on board, but went in the studio to record the second album with Gary, ‘Victims Of The Future’, anyway. But I had a very unenjoyable time doing that record and after a couple of months there was a mutual parting of the ways. Around the same time David decided to fire his bass player, Colin Hodgkinson, and I’d heard from people like Cozy that Colin hadn’t fitted in at all personality-wise and had retreated into himself. It hadn’t worked out the way everybody thought it was going to. Mel Galley was very keen for me to come back into the band. He’d always been a cheerleader for me.
I think Whitesnake had gone into the recording of the next album, ‘Slide It In’, aiming for a very particular direction. David had signed with Geffen in America and John Kalodner from the label had been getting involved and having a lot of say. After the album was finished Micky Moody left the band and John Sykes came in. Geffen weren’t happy with how ‘Slide It In’ sounded and decided that it not only needed a remix, but that the bass and a certain amount of the guitars should be re-recorded. So I ended up back in the band.
What did they want from you for the re-recording?
I didn’t have a specific brief, but the way the songs were constructed didn’t really allow me to do too much, apart from reproduce what was already there. The American version of ‘Slide It In’ is still pretty much the same album and the same songs as the original version. There’s not that much difference, really, though it clearly did end up sounding more Americanised.
When I think about stuff I recorded with Whitesnake I don’t really think about ‘Slide It In’, because I wasn’t there for the whole process. The songs didn’t really allow the kind of bass parts I was playing on ‘Come An’ Get It’ and ‘Ready An’ Willing’ so I ended up doing something that fit perfectly and was right for the song, but didn’t really express any personality. There’s not much Neil Murray in there.
Whitesnake went out as a four piece in 1984 after Jon Lord had left the band. Mel Galley had had an accident that caused nerve damage to his hand, which meant he’d had to leave as well. Then it became much more of a power trio with vocals, which wasn’t really represented on ‘Slide It In’ and in a way was closer to how the ‘1987’ album would end up sounding. But that line-up never played in the UK, so it never really got people’s attention.
How did you look at the American influence that was being brought to bear on the band at that time?
I met Kalodner when I went to LA to do the re-recording for ‘Slide It In’ and I felt that his view was, ‘We think David’s a superstar. We’re going to do everything we can to make him a huge success in America.’ As part of that process Kalodner was certainly pushing to get great-looking young guys like John Sykes in the band in preference to older blokes like Jon Lord, and as it turned out he had huge success moulding the band in that direction. His mantra for the next Whitesnake album was that there needed to be a Led Zeppelin for the ‘80s. And there was a certain amount of ‘Let’s do what the record company say’ at this point. But I think this was slightly misinterpreted by many people, especially journalists. When ‘1987’ came out people suggested Whitesnake had done everything possible to sound exactly like Led Zeppelin. Personally I think it’s only ‘Still Of The Night’ that bears some resemblance.
How did you feel about this new outside influence on the band?
I was very much with David in wanting Whitesnake to change and, in fact, I was probably listening to more American type rock than he was. David was having to be dragged towards it more than I was. But at the same time you got the feeling that you were dispensable. Not so much that David would crush everything in his path, but business people like Kalodner were prepared to do whatever it took to make David a success. If that meant ditching the whole band and getting a new one, then that’s what they’d do. It was a very business-like attitude.
So you were in the firing line…
Yes, and I thought that was wrong in my case. Things were complicated. John Sykes wanted Whitesnake to be him and David, and he wanted to be as important as David in terms of deciding who else would be in the band. For example, John wanted Cozy there because Cozy was a hero of his and a bit of a hooligan to boot, which is what John liked. In an ideal world John would have had all his favourite guys in the band. It was almost like an insecurity thing, I think. If he had a band full of the best guys in the world, then that would mean he was on their level. John didn’t really look at the good things the people he was already working with had to offer. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. I was a very different type of person to John and at times we got on well together and we played well together. But in the end he was very ambitious. He wanted to be David’s equal, but David didn’t want that and the record company didn’t want that. This kind of got in the way and that’s partly why the recording of the next album took so long. Cozy had left and myself and the new drummer, Aynsley Dunbar, weren’t getting paid. I thought that I was still a member of Whitesnake until I was told that I wasn’t. Aynsley took a different view. The minute he stopped getting paid he was like ‘See you, goodbye.’ So whereas in early ’84 there were six people in Whitesnake, by the summer of 1986 there were just three – me, John and David.
So what happened to John?
Well, for whatever reason David sort of sidelined John. Adrian Vandenberg was brought in to play the solo on ‘Here I Go Again’. John flew to LA to be present at the mix of the ‘1987’ album at Keith Olsen’s studio. But David basically told him that he wasn’t involved and that he should go away. So they had a screaming row and John quit, so all of a sudden it was only me and David left. I was in the UK, penniless, and David was in LA with the business people. It was easy for him to pretend I didn’t exist and to start again.
So how did you find out that you were out of the band for a second time?
David never told me I was out of the band. You could, of course, rationalise things and say that when I stopped being paid on 1 April 1986 then I was no longer part of the band. But that’s not how I was treated after that point. I went in and recorded bass parts six months later, which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been in the band. It just makes it cleaner for David to pretend that he fired us all.
David has often behaved like this, where he expected loyalty to Whitesnake even when you weren’t getting paid. But that was impossible for me in 1986. Unless you’re an ex Purple member with royalties coming in and you can sit around doing nothing, then you have to go out and work. I did some stuff with Bernie Marsden and Mel Galley in MGM, which was at a really small level. But David didn’t think that was a good thing. But partly because of the fact that early Whitesnake had not sold millions and millions of records, and partly because of the way John Coletta had set things up we got no royalties from any of those early albums, which is a whole other bone of contention. The assumption was that because I’d been in a successful band then I must be getting royalties. But there was nothing like that. I was still thinking about how I was going to pay the rent. I had to jump through hoops even to get any royalties from the ‘1987’ album and then I ended up with something very unequal in terms of percentage. But at least I got something.
So was it hard for you to exit the band just before the ‘1987’ album went massive in the States?
It’s weird because I played bass on that album, but David rewrote history to suit him. It was annoying at the time that people thought the line-up that toured that record, – Adrian Vandenberg, Viv Campbell, Rudy Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge – played on the album. They got all the kudos and the multi platinum awards and they made an absolute fortune just from gigging.
Have you reconciled yourself with this now?
It depends on my mood. I can go out and do gigs where people want to hear the old songs and I’m proud of them and am happy to have made a contribution. But then many people think of Whitesnake as only the band that was hugely successful in ’87, ’88 and ’89. It’s kind of embarrassing that people might associate me with that image, with all the hair and the make up. I thought at the time that they were digging themselves a hole, and then Guns N’ Roses came along and instantly made them look totally out of date. You could say that’s sour grapes, of course, because Whitesnake were very successful in that period. But mostly when I think of my time in Whitesnake I think of the enjoyment and the musical side of what we did. I’m pretty happy with quite a large chunk of it and I’m proud of my bass playing and that it was well represented on a number of songs. And no matter who I’ve played with – and there’s a huge long list – Whitesnake is the group I’m most associated with. The only annoying thing is when people have a certain image of Whitesnake that isn’t the one I have.
So do you still see the other Whitesnake guys?
Well I still work with Bernie and I was recently at Micky’s third wedding. I see Ian very occasionally, but he’s not somebody who’s easy to get close to. I haven’t had much contact with Dave Dowle in 30 years, really. You tend to be best mates with the guys you’re working with and when you’re not working together any more, that’s when you realise that you don’t have that much in common with most of them. If you leave a band, then suddenly you’ve got nothing to talk to them about. Bernie’s different. I might not speak to him for five years, but then we’ll pick it up again and get back into being matey again.
I spoke to David for the first time in nearly 30 years a couple of years back, but we’re not in touch now. I don’t think we have very much in common, because he’s been living in America for 30 years and he’s a different person to the guy I knew.